Chayei Sarah 5778

Disobeying your host[1]

ויישם לפניו לאכל ויאמר לא אכל עד אם-דברתי דברי ויאמר דבר: ויאמר עבד אברהם אנכי
They placed before [Eliezer] food to eat and he said: “I will not eat until I have spoken my mind”. They said to him: “Speak”. He said: “I am a servant of Avraham”[2]

The time had come for Yitzchak to get married. Avraham asked his trusted servant Eliezer[3] to go to his birthplace to find a suitable mate. After determining that Rivka was the proper wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer requested a meeting with her family. They offered him food to eat, but he adamantly refused. He didn’t want to eat until he had fulfilled his mission[4]. He then proceeded to tell them the entire story of how he came to their land and why he felt Rivka was the one to marry Yitzchak. For some reason he started his speech with the phrase: “I am the servant of Avraham”. Why did he need to give this introduction? They knew who he was; Rivka had already told them[5]. What was Eliezer emphasizing?

Chazal teach us[6] a law regarding when a person is a guest in another’s home: כל מה שיאמר לך בעל הבית עשה (חוץ מצא), everything the host says to do, the guest must obey (except to leave[7]). The Vilna Gaon understands[8] that this obligation to listen to the host is so strong, that a guest is considered akin to a slave and the host their master. Therefore, when Rivka’s family told Eliezer to eat, he really should have listened to them. However, when Eliezer said he was a servant of Avraham, he was justifying his refusal. He didn’t want to eat yet, and was telling them that he didn’t have to listen to them. He already had a master. Therefore, his host couldn’t become a master over him.

However, this answer is contradicted by the answer to a different question. The Meshech Chochmah writes[9] that there are only three people who merited to have Hashem call them עבדי, Hashem’s servant: Avraham, Kalev and Moshe. Why not others, like Yehoshua? He writes that anyone who called another person “my Master”, becoming subservient to another, lost the right to be called Hashem’s servant. Since Yehoshua called Moshe “my Master”[10], he didn’t get this title. The obvious question on this idea is that Avraham also called another “my Master”[11]. In last week’s parsha, Avraham called the biggest of the three Angels visiting him “my Master”[12]. Why did he still merit to be called “Hashem’s servant”? The simple answer is that when a person calls another “my Master” solely because they feel insignificant compared to the other, that’s when they lost the title of Hashem’s servant. An example would be Yehoshua, who felt that Moshe was so much greater than him, and thus called him “my Master”. Not so by Avraham. Part of the mitzvah of taking care of guests is making them feel special. A person should treat their guest in a way that makes them feel like they’re in charge, and the host is their servant. Therefore, Avraham calling the Angel “my Master” didn’t take away from his merit to be called “Hashem’s servant”. According to this approach, the guest is the master and the host is the servant. This seems to contradict the Vilna Gaon’s principle that the host is the master, not the guest.

An answer can be seen from the following story[13]. There was once a prominent elderly Rabbi who was visiting his grandson’s home. As they both approached the door, the grandson offered to let his grandfather enter first. The Rabbi adamantly refused the honor. After they both had entered, the grandson offered to let his grandfather sit in the fanciest chair at the head of the table. His grandfather immediately took him up on the offer. He asked his grandfather why before he refused and now he didn’t. The Rabbi explained that he does not want to accept honors. However, when it comes to listening to one’s host, he can’t refuse[14]. So why did he initially refuse to enter first? He explained that before he entered the house, he wasn’t a guest yet. Therefore, he could refuse to accept the honor.

When Eliezer was in Rivka’s house, he was already a guest. Therefore, the host should have become his master. Eliezer however could refuse to eat, since he already had Avraham as his master. This is unlike the case of Avraham and the Angels; they weren’t his guests yet, nor Avraham their host. Nevertheless, Avraham wanted to take care of them, as they were his potential guests. It was possible then for Avraham to treat them like they were his masters, without contradicting the above principle.

However, a much simpler approach is that there was never a contradiction to begin with. Who is the master, and who is the slave? Both are. There is a rule that a guest must listen to everything the host says. So much so that they must view themself as a slave and the host as their master. However, the host should give their guest the feeling like they’re the master. They should take care of their every need. Avraham would have called the Angels his master even once they entered his home. He tried his best to take care of another. This is the proper way to host guests, and to be a guest in a host’s home.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on a shiur by Rabbi Elimelech Reznick in 5774

[2] Genesis 24:33-34

[3] Ibid 24:2, Yoma 28b, and Taanis 4a; Targum Yonasan ad. loc.; See Rashi to Genesis 24:39 who assumes this as well

[4] See Be’er Yosef to Genesis 24:33, who gives an interesting explanation why Eliezer refused to eat

[5] ibid verse 28

[6] Pesachim 86b; brought in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 170:5. See the following note

[7] The gemarra has these last words in parentheses, indicating they don’t belong there. The Shulchan Aruch loc. cit. also left it out of the halacha. The Be’ur Halacha ad. loc. brings these words, noting that this exception does appear in some texts of the gemarra. The simple meaning seems to be that if the homeowner demands that their guest leave, they don’t have to listen. This on the surface doesn’t make sense (see Maharsha ad. loc.). The Be’ur Halacha brings the explanation of the Bach ad. loc., that it means if the homeowner asks you to do errands outside the house, you don’t have to listen. However, the Meiri ad. loc. maintains that these words in the gemarra are a mistake, and were added in by jokesters, as they clearly can’t be true

[8] This comes from a story brought in the introduction to Be’ur HaGra on Shulchan Aruch, written by his sons, s.v. ואספר. The Vilna Gaon was traveling on the road with some of his students, and they became the guests of a generous person. He prepared them a meal and served it to them. The Vilna Gaon wasn’t feeling well, but ate the food anyways. He had to excuse himself in order to vomit up the food, and afterwards returned to his seat. The homeowner noticed the Vilna Gaon’s plate was empty, and insisted he eat more. The Vilna Gaon ate it, and had to excuse himself again. This happened three or four times. One of the students asked the Gaon, why was he torturing himself? He responded that anytime Chazal say something with the words עשה, it must be followed עד שתצא נפשו (although not inclusively). He therefore couldn’t refuse his “master’s” command to eat more food

[9] Numbers 11:28

[10] ibid

[11] Rabbi Reznick thought of this question himself, and then saw Rav Chatzkel Abramsky also asked this question

[12] Genesis 18:3. See for another explanation of what Avraham was saying

[13] Rabbi Resnick said this story was about his brother-in-law and his grandfather R’ Shlomo Zalman (presumably Auerbach)

[14] To demonstrate his point, R’ Shlomo Zalman told over a story about when the Gerrer Rebbe went to visit Rav Kook. Rav Kook insisted that the Gerrer Rebbe sit at the head of the table, and the Gerrer Rebbe refused. Rav Kook reminded him he was the host, so he had to be obeyed. The Gerrer Rebbe responded that כל מה שיאמר לך בעל הבית עשה חוץ מצא, and Chazal say in Avos 4:21 that הקנאה והתאוה והכבוד מוציאין את האדם מן העולם, honor takes a person out of this world. Therefore, he didn’t have to listen. Rav Kook responded it’s a nice shtikkel Torah, but it goes against Tosafos in Pesachim 86b s.v. אין מסרבין לגדול. They say that even though a person can refuse the command of someone greater when it relates to an honor, not so if one’s host commands it